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Squalor beneath the glamour

The roads in Hyderabad are a wonder. The IT industry is the talk of the world. Yet, human rights and the basic needs of the people have been ignored. Manual scavenging is still a daily affair. MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA writes on how progress at the cost of human dignity cannot be called fair.

BASKETS of excrement in Chandrababu Naidu's cyberworld? I don't believe it," I exclaimed. "It's 52 years after Independence. Manual scavenging belongs to the Dark Ages. And in Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Not in hi-tech Andhra Pradesh."

Bejwada Wilson, Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan laughed. "Hi-tech maybe in Hyderabad. Come, I'll show you how impressive Andhra Pradesh is once you move off the airport roads." He proceeded to take me and Harsh Mander, ActionAid Chief Executive, to nearby Anantapur to walk the streets at dawn, to investigate the state of the town's public toilets.

I'd heard the roads in Hyderabad are the nth wonder of the Indian world. The electricity hardly ever goes off. No voltage fluctuation. Anantapur is a major town in Andhra Pradesh. It was certainly better off than Karnataka or Tamil Nadu's towns of similar size in terms of roads and electricity. Then we reached the public toilet at 6 a.m. I'm talking about the year 2000. May 2, to be precise.

There were high walls like a fortress. Solid, well-built walls. A narrow entrance through which one person at a time could squeeze through. And voila, suddenly, you were in the Budappa Nagar toilet in Anantapur. It boasts of being one of the biggest in Andhra Pradesh, with 400 seats in a single complex. What this means to the reader unfamiliar with semi-urban public toilets, is that there are two cement footrests forming a squat toilet which leads into a long drain running along the length of the toilet. 400 such seats in long rows enable community defecation. There was no flush system. Women arrived with little lotas (metal pots) of water which barely succeeded in cleaning themselves leave alone the messes they left behind. Involuntarily, I covered my face with my dupatta. The stench was overwhelming even before our eyes took in the filth of the place. I had to use concentrated self-control not to rush out and throw up. I forced my hand away from my nose, ashamed of my reaction before Narayanamma, a woman who spent hours in this living hell every day of her life. Narayanamma was around 35. She couldn't be sure. And from the time she was around 13 this has been her life, sweeping faeces every morning and afternoon for nearly as long as she can remember.

The 400 seats were well used. They served the women of four wards and for Narayanamma, the cleaning went on relentlessly from 6 a.m. till 10 a.m. Then another late afternoon session. Killing, backbreaking work in degrading inhuman conditions devoid of any dignity. First Narayanamma sweeps the excrement into piles. Then, using two flat pieces of tin, she scoops it up and drops it into a bamboo basket which she places nearby. She then carries this basket to the top of the toilet wall where later the night soil tractor will arrive to pick it up. As soon as she arrives for work, she hitches up her sari tightly so that it does not trail on the ground or come into contact with the excrement. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to go through a whole day's work without some of the faeces inadvertently splashing onto her clothes and person.

Narayanamma has done this work since she was around 13. Her life has not been an enviable one. With two younger brothers and sisters, she was expected to chip in from an early age. At six and seven years she was out helping her mother, a landless labourer, in the fields. They toiled in paddy, ragi and groundnut fields. She began cooking for the family when she was eight. Then her mother died when she was ten and she had to help her widowed father take care of the little children. Still, Narayanamma assures me, life was better, more pleasant in the village. Far, far better than in the city. She attained puberty at 12. And life changed dramatically and irrevocably for the hapless little girl.

She was brought to the house of her older sister in Anantapur. Her sister was childless. In local parlance a barren woman, cursed by all around her. Sooner or later, her husband would be advised to take a second, more fertile wife to produce the mandatory sons. Her sister decided Narayanamma would be a better bet as the second wife. A safer, more docile, new bride. So the girl was married at 13 to her older, already married brother-in- law.

This was the start of city life for Narayanamma. But there were to be no bright lights or fancy geegaws for this village girl. Soon after the no-frills wedding ceremony, her sister took her to the toilets of Anantapur to introduce her to their daily routine. Four interminable hours of sweeping faeces every morning. "The first time my sister took me to the toilets," she recalled, "I felt sick. I vomited endlessly, a non-stop retching till nothing more would come out. I thought I would faint. There is a saying in our language. 'If you break our stomachs, the intestines will fall on our legs.' This is our fate. To feed my children I had to do this work."

Narayanamma's story was not an uncommon one. I'd heard it from countless women in Gujarat and it is repeated wherever manual scavenging goes on. The scenario, the toilets, the women are identical. Only the language and a few minor changes in scenery provide a variation. But essentially there is no difference. Each woman's story of how she was plunged into her new scavenging vocation has the same gut-wrenching pain, the utter helplessness in the face of absolute degradation. A terrible helplessness which over the years is transformed into a mute acceptance that this is what fate has ordained for them. After 20 odd years of cleaning toilets, Narayanamma clings to a dignity which is strangely at variance with the work she does. She is dressed spotlessly. Immaculately clean, hair oiled and well-groomed. She even wears flowers, a string of jasmine in her hair. Her home is equally spotless. You could eat off her floor. The walls are whitewashed. The pristine cleanliness would put many a middle- class home to shame. The paradoxes are almost too difficult to comprehend. But the evidence suggests that Narayanamma deserves better. The fate she has been condemned to is a blot on the so- called honour of our country. A shame that we seem content to live with.

A few people have managed to divert their attention from hi tech to basic needs and human rights. They have formed the Safai Karmachari Andolan in an attempt to fight for the likes of Narayanamma.

In Andhra Pradesh, responsible groups belonging to the Safai Karmachari Andolan have carried out a survey of 12 districts. They are Anantapur, Cuddapah, Chitoor, East Godavari, Guntur, Kurnool, Krishna, Mahabubnagar, Nalgonda, Prakasam, Visakhapatnam and Hyderabad. Fifty one towns in these 12 districts were covered. Officials admitted to manual scavenging in eight of these towns. The findings revealed the presence of manual scavenging in 43!!

Manual scavenging and dry latrines were rendered illegal by the "Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act No. 46" of 1993. Narasimha Rao, as Prime Minister, took this as a personal mission and instituted a National Commission to abolish the abhorrent practice in our country. But nothing much happened. Most governments now deny the existence of manual scavenging in their States although in fact the system is prevalent almost everywhere except for Kerala and the North Eastern states according to the findings of the National Commission for safai karmacharis.

To me it is particularly shocking that such a primitive toilet system can exist at all, at the start of the new millennium. It is even more shocking that it should exist in A.P., a State that boasts super-efficient modern technology and aspires to become the cyber centre of India.

Bejawada Wilson, in a letter to Chief Minister Mr. Chandrababu Naidu has sent the findings of the survey together with an appeal for the CM to look into the plight of AP's safai karmacharis 50 after Independence.

While we invest millions in roads and infrastructure designed to impress foreign investors, the state of our toilets and even worse, the plight of our people who clean them, cannot fail to shock normal people. President Clinton dropped a bombshell with his statement in Hyderabad that the interests of the poor should not be overlooked in the technology scramble. One does not wish to burden overseas visitors with the dirtiest of our domestic problems. But perhaps Mr. Chandrababu Naidu (whom I have the greatest admiration for) had best put his own house in order before venturing out into the global arena. It would be an international scandal if the AP public toilets were displayed in the web pages he is so proud of. If the lives of Narayanamma and the thousands of women like her were to find their way into the global information pool.

The writer is author of a book on the problems of scavengers, Endless Filth, published by Books for Change.

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